A new take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is just what the doctor ordered for a sultry July evening. On a Midsummer’s Night is a musical rendition of the 16th-century comedy, composed by Hudson Valley’s Debbie Lan, an award-winning composer/lyricist who, in her spare time, founded and directs Bloom and the B2s (her community women’s voice ensembles) and Wednesdays, a new mixed-voice ensemble. The premiere of the pop opera takes place at the Rosendale Theatre this weekend, with three performances for the choosing.
Adept at writing and performing contemporary music (she has recorded with Robbie Dupree, Artie Traum, John Hall, Dog on Fleas and others, and has recorded two award-winning CDs of original Cape Town-inspired music for children and families with her band Grenadilla), Lan has been part of the local music scene since moving to Woodstock in 1992. Putting Shakespeare to music was not this South African’s idea, however.
“I’d been teaching at High Meadow School, and my colleague, the sixth-grade Drama and Humanities teacher Ally Uzzle, would take something the children were reading, and I would set it to music. One year she said, ‘Let’s do Midsummer Night’s Dream!’ So I wrote nine songs for the kids, and four years later I wrote more songs.”
Lan discovered that any kid who likes to sing but didn’t want to learn the speeches could indeed absorb the Bard’s words when set to a tune. “I’d walk around on campus and hear the kids singing the songs on the playground, and I thought, ‘Wow, they’re singing Shakespeare! Twelve-year-olds in sixth grade!’
“So I went back to the script, and in reading it I saw there was music everywhere. I decided I would write through to the end. We did a run-through of an excerpt of this show in December 2016 with the Rosendale Theatre’s Artists’ New Work Forum, funded by an Arts Mid-Hudson grant. It went really well. Now there are 60 pieces of music – not all songs; some are only 15 seconds or 30 seconds of snippets. It’s very conversational, and it lasts a little over two hours. There will be an intermission at the Rosendale Theatre.”
Lan says that she has never really been a Shakespeare person, but is interested in going back to read more. “I’ve been to plays and seen movies. This musical is eclectic: a little bit of pop, some a bit folksy, bluesy, jazzy. It’s really about looking at the words and then going with it. Shakespeare writes in two different ways for two different sorts of characters: the tradespeople or commoners and the lords and ladies. The music is sophisticated, but with the tradespeople, they’re kind of singsongy.”
Citing something that she’d heard on NPR recently, Lan says, “The opera buffs will say that only opera is opera. Rock opera is not opera. I imagine they wouldn’t enjoy me calling my work a ‘pop opera.’ I’m just trying to figure out what you would call this. It’s not a musical style; it’s just music. My big dream is that we could get it to Broadway and hear it with an orchestra.” Onstage in Rosendale, the cast will be accompanied by Lan on piano, Jason Sarubbi on bass and Kirsten Jacobsen on flute, with what Lan calls a “light coloration” of music.
We talked about doing a show with adults for adults, and here we are. I went to some friends and asked, ‘Could you help me out?’ We had auditions and have a fabulous cast. Most of them are doing one character, but two of them are taking on two.”
Lan built a team – a stage manager, publicity person and fundraiser – through connections in her choir ensembles. “To have a team of very strong women is invaluable. I couldn’t have done it myself. About the play: What I found so interesting is that in working with adults, people are digging into their characters in a deeper way. Some are even researching their characters and coming to me with ideas. One came and said, ‘I looked at the original script, and you left out a few lines.’ So I said, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ And looking at some of the issues, it’s interesting that we still have some of the same issues today. So staying true to the script, how do you enact it? What is the flavor of the character? Is the Duke really a misogynist? You can see that he’s not; he has conflict.
“One of the actors asked about the hetero messages in the script. It’s just been so interesting to explore the relationships between the young couples. There’s trickery and deception, and it made me look at how things work in our culture today. It may be a lot more covert today. Shakespeare is so universal and timely. His messages have a lot of truth in them. And it hasn’t changed that much. What I like about the show, especially adding the music to it, is that it makes it more accessible. We can still do Shakespeare, but we can interpret it.”
The production is directed by Allyson Uzzle. Cast members include a diverse mix of talented actors and singers from the local community: Carrie Wykoff, Doug Motel, Matteo Undici, Brian Mathews, Sarah Urech, Casey Richards, Margaret Stanne, Andrea Maddox, Timothy Bruck, Quay Smith, Mikal Kalus and Gil Sweeney. From Tim Bruck: “What’s so exciting about being involved in this project is that it’s fresh and inventive. It takes the world and language of Shakespeare and makes them digestible to a modern audience.”
The staged reading in December was done with music stands and stationary microphones. For this performance, the actors will all be miked, which will make for better drama. It will also be videotaped so that it can be offered for use to other theater companies and as a teaching tool to schools.
On a Midsummer’s Night, Friday, July 28, 7 p.m., Saturday, July 29, 2 & 7 p.m., $20/$15, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3022715.